31 December 2009

The Viking In All Of Us

It seems there is still a bit of the old Viking spirit in the residents of the Wirral, who have successfully fought off local government plans to close most of their libraries. This news report on Channel 4 this evening notes that the library at Irby was one of those scheduled to close, and also shows this fine old signpost of the footpath to Thurstaston. Both Irby and Thurstaston are places that can trace their origins to the Viking settlement of Wirral in the tenth century, as you can read, if you are interested, in Paul Cavill et al., Wirral and its Viking Heritage, 2000.
Today's Guardian editorial is 'In praise of ... British cheeses' - hear, hear! I think we can all assent to that... News to me, however, is that a Scottish cheese called crowdie 'traces its origin to the Viking invasion'. I suppose this is part of the general tendency to ascribe all good things to the Vikings, so I can second that. However, the OED claims its derivation is unknown, merely noting that 'Jamieson conjectured some connexion with GROUT, and Icel. groutr [sic] porridge; this suits the sense, but leaves phonetic conditions unsatisfied'. Quite. Thus do scholarly conjectures turn into newspaper fact... The 'porridge' meaning, by the way, is now obsolete according to the OED, but the second meaning it lists is 'in some parts of the north of Scotland, a peculiar preparation of milk' (eh?). The northern distribution may I suppose reflect Viking influence, and here I must recall one of my earlier posts on this blog, just over a year ago, about Crowdie Vikings, so maybe there is something in it.
Happy New Year to one and all, Viking or no Viking!

22 December 2009

New Blog For Runes and Coins

The National Museum of Denmark has set up what looks like a very useful new blog in which they will report on new finds of runic inscriptions and coins. The most recent blog, posted by Lisbeth Imer on 15 December, shows a recent find of a bronze runic amulet (from near Ribe) which has not yet been fully interpreted but seems to contain the word þurs ... interesting!

Gleðileg jól!

The word of the week at the Stofnun Árna Magnússonar í íslenskum fræðum is, most appropriately, jól. Have a good one, one and all!

11 December 2009

A Modern Swelkie

Among all the devices being tried out in the waters around Orkney to harness the energy of tides and waves, one caught my eye in particular. It's an undersea turbine, described as a 6m wide 'fan', and it is being tried out in the 'Fall of Warness' off the coast of Eday. I caught sight of it in a news item on the BBC the other day. Because the BBC report implied it was being tried out in the Pentland Firth, it reminded me of an Old Norse legend, a version of the widespread aetiological tale in which an undersea salt mill is said to be the reason why the sea is salt. One version of this tale attaches this legend to the Swelkie (sometimes written Swilkie or Swelchie), a fearsome tidal whirlpool in the Pentland Firth (I've discussed this a bit in this paper from the Durham Saga-Conference and also in one from the Uppsala Saga-Conference, which can be downloaded here). This picture of the turbine looks just like how I imagined the salt-mill...

06 December 2009

Lewis Chesspersons Again

Everyone's favourite Vikings, the Lewis playing pieces, are in the news again. There is an article in Medieval Archaeology (which I haven't fully digested yet) propounding new theories about what kind of board game the pieces were used for (hnefatafl rather than chess), and why they were found on Lewis (belonged to a rich person who lived there, rather than just accidentally shipwrecked there). No doubt the press accounts (e.g. the BBC website) oversimplify a more nuanced academic article, so I am looking forward to reading that (there is also a bit more detail in the press release). The article is in fact available free online, so it will save me a trip to the library! I have a particular interest, because I have recently argued that one of Earl Rögnvaldr's verses contains a reference to chess, and draw the parallel with the roughly contemporary Lewis pieces.
The other bit of news is that a selection of the playing pieces will go on tour around Scotland in 2010-11: full details are available from the National Museums of Scotland website.

04 December 2009

Viking Wine

I've just been given this splendid present, a Viking wine holder (wine bottles fit perfectly, but in the picture I used some jiggery-pokery to put a more appropriate bottle into the holder). His name is Thorfinn Blast, and he is every inch the Viking warrior. Note his lack of horns, which is pretty good, especially if you compare him to my other two Vikings, Einar Rope-Arms (the brown one) and Brusi Bubble (the rather silly one with a moustache and ears [EARS?]).
Einar is an old Danish Viking, probably from the 1960s when such things were very popular, while Brusi was acquired only a week or two ago from the German Christmas market in The Square in Nottingham. Every year they have a stall with fun wooden figures, and this one was irresistible, though not terribly Viking. He can, however, cleverly move his mouth... As to Thorfinn, well I don't know where he came from, do I, as he was a present!
In case you were wondering, the ladybirds don't have names.

21 November 2009

Viking Lakeland

Every year I take some MA students for a lightning field trip to the Lake District, to look at sculpture, runic inscriptions and place-names. The picture shows this year's group at Aspatria, by the grave of W.S. Calverley, a few weeks ago. Another great name in Viking Lakeland studies is of course W.G. Collingwood, the subject of a book by Matthew Townend (The Vikings and Victorian Lakeland: The Norse Medievalism of W.G. Collingwood and His Contemporaries), out early next month and available from the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society. It's sad to hear the current bad news about the devastating floods in Cumbria - I hope they recover soon.

15 November 2009

Odin Finally Discovered

This small figurine, silver-gilt with niello inlay, and less than 2 cm square, has been found in the archaeological excavations at Lejre, and is (perhaps a bit hastily in my opinion) being touted as a representation of the god Odin, sitting on his seat Hlidskjalf. Read more about it (from Roskilde Museum) in Danish here and here. One does wonder, when a find is as 'unique' and 'unprecedented' as this one, whether the excited finders shouldn't have been a bit more cautious in declaring what exactly it is, not least because, as far as I can tell, the figurine has two eyes!

14 November 2009

Yet Another History of the Vikings

Your blogstress, dear reader, remembers Robert Ferguson from when we were both students at UCL together, many, many years ago. At that time he was only interested in Knut Hamsun. He later moved to Norway and had some success with several books on Hamsun. Now, apparently, his university training has been put to the use of writing about the Vikings. It will be interesting to see if Hamsun gets a mention, but especially to see if Ferguson has anything really new to say, or whether he has just found a new way of putting the period across to the general public. In the meantime, there is a review of The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings on The Times website.

05 November 2009

It's Only a Theory...

Julian Richards, TV archaeologist, presents the theory 'Vikings were a force for good' to a panel of BBC folk. Horned helmets, slaughter and Kirk Douglas galore - can JR persuade the comedians otherwise? Watch this clip to see whether the theory is approved, or fails the test.

30 June 2009

Rognvald for Kids

Hello anybody who is still out there - apologies for a long absence, during which much has happened on the Viking front and I have been to various interesting places including Norway and (briefly) Iceland. There's too much to catch up on, as I'm still quite busy, so I'll just cut my losses and hope to be a bit more regular with my postings in the future.
Today's post was spurred by my discovery of a charming teaching pack for schools on Earl Rognvald of Orkney, downloadable from the Orkney Library and Archives website (or just go straight to the pack itself). While some of what they say about language, in particular, doesn't bear too close examination by experts, on the whole it will do for children. In fact, I am quite impressed, it is an attractive booklet and draws all kinds of themes out very nicely. Of course, I have a personal interest! Long live Rognvald...

23 February 2009


When I started this blog, I promised some account of my travels, but there has been too little of that (though I have travelled quite a lot in the last year or so) and too much of robbing things from the internet and the media. So I am quite happy to report on a recent lightning visit to Limerick. Apart from the usual things that make it a pleasure to visit Ireland (Guinness, friendly people, fiddle music leaking out of pubs, heathery mountains on the horizon) I was quite taken by the ruined church, round tower and cross at Dysart O'Dea (or however you wish to spell it). Both the splendid romanesque doorway to the church and the cross up on the hill had what seemed, to my inexpert eye, to be late-flowering Irish Urnes-style decoration (see the photo). And of course there were the usual pleasures of Irish sacred sites, with the garishly but lovingly decorated family graves, a tower house in the distance, and the nearest village with the 20 pubs in different colours. Coo....

14 February 2009

Viking Life

Following up the Jorvik Viking Festival (see previous blog), I found a link to 'Dismorphia: Viking York, coming to a computer near you Spring 2009'. It promises an 'on-line virtual world that features real cities at different eras in time', with York as their first venture. A sort of Second Life for those of us who would like to do it in the year 975. Sounds like fun, I'm looking forward to learning Viking skills, collecting and trading Viking items and joining a ship's crew!

Viking Week

Next week sees that venerable institution, the Jorvik Viking Festival, return for the 24th time. The programme promises the usual mix of 'Viking hair-braiding' (how do they know?), a Viking wedding, 'combat through the ages' and storytelling for the kids. I am sorry I'll have to miss Andrew Jones (a great lecturer) talking about 'Viking Poo' next Saturday to a family audience. Andrew of course was the finder of the Great Viking Turd on display at Jorvik, so he knows the subject well!
I confess I'm a little less enamoured with the event (3 times a day, every day) which promises us a recitation of The Wanderer and The Seafarer, 'two ancient poems that evoke the hardships of a Viking life at sea'. Those pesky Anglo-Saxons are always trying to muscle in on Viking fun... There is also a retelling of Beowulf on offer, but at least that doesn't pretend to be 'Viking', though I suppose some kind of a case could be made for that.
Click here for the programme if you want to know more (it's a pdf file).

26 January 2009

Runic Rescue

A long train journey recently gave me a good excuse to read S.J. Bolton's Sacrifice. It's actually a very readable thriller, and I do recommend it. However, to enjoy it Vikingists will have to forgive the author's rather obvious lack of either knowledge of or love for Shetland, where the book is set. She also needs to do a bit more homework on what she thinks of as 'Viking runes', especially their forms, their names and their functions! I don't particularly mind the New Age-y interest in runes, though I wish those who take an interest would at least inform themselves about the differences between the various alphabets, and find out which ones are 'Viking' and which are something else. Ralph Blum (Bolton's only source) has a lot to answer for...

04 January 2009

Tinfoil Thor

Yesterday's Guardian reports a curious story in which a party-goer dressed as Thor returned home to terrify a burglar with his tinfoil and red-cape outfit.... There is a small picture of him in the print version of the paper, and quite a glorious one in the online version of The Sun (not a paper I normally read, of course). Both papers (and probably many others, too) indulged in bad puns ('Thor blimey', 'Thief Thor-ght it's hammer time'). The costume may be a bit curious, but it is good to see that the No. 2 god is still doing his job of protecting all and sundry from the depredations of the Other.